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John Muir Trail: Day 12, Thousand Island

I thought I'd get better rest in an actual bed, but I found myself missing the cocoon of my sleeping bag and the sounds of the outdoors only a few hours in. That's not to say I didn't immediately fall back asleep and awaken well-rested, but it wasn't the trivially easy sort of sleep I'd imagined. Hopper, Maximus and I made our way to the shuttle that Timmy, Katie, and Taylor had organized, all of us ready to get back on the trail. But at the last minute, Maximus decided to spend another day in town, restocking on food and preparing for the long carry to south Tahoe. With Tuolumne's store closed, there was precious little in the way of accessible stores until Echo Lake, another 170 miles north. A hitch would be fine, but given the COVID circumstances, it seemed simpler to stock up and take the weight. We said our goodbyes to Maximus and took the shuttle to the trailhead just down the way.

From left: me, Taylor, Katie, Timmy, and Hopper, heading out of Mammoth

When we arrived, we were treated to a frenzy of day hikers, some with babies, some with entire packs of dogs. A group of hikers passed us headed southbound, each of the 7 hikers accompanied by their own tiny terrier. Small in everything but spirit, we were told. The day's earliest SOBO JMT hikers were only a few miles from Mammoth by the time we ran across them. We took our time that morning-- while we all had our trail legs, it was Taylor's first day on trail. And that's not to say that he was driving the pace-- I fell behind, filming, chatting with other hikers, petting dogs, and admiring fish in the creek. Hopper's heavy pack (also trying to make it to Echo Lake, so a 14 day food carry) slowed him a fair deal, and so our group moved along happily and relaxed, together, northward.

We aimed for a lunch break at Rosalie Lake, and I stopped to talk with a troop of Boy Scouts. It was a group close to my own heart, stressed high schoolers with college apps on the horizon, energetic middle schoolers just excited to be out there, and exasperated dads trying to keep track of the group. They were carrying heavy, heavy packs-- the type I grew up carrying, with cast iron dutch ovens and external frames. They were hiking exactly how I would've in that terrain, pushing through 6 or 8 miles a day-- they asked about my pack and how far I was going, and were surprised to find out I was on the JMT. I don't say this to seem like some kind of experienced ultralight hiker-- this was my second trip with this gear, and any ultralight die-hard would scoff at my 12 pound base weight. But compared to a traditional setup, the weight savings seem immense, and the impact it can have on your hiking capability is also notable. There's no right way to hike-- that group (dads excepted) was having a great time, and any opportunity to see the outdoors (particularly the backcountry) is a far cry better than what I usually spend my time doing: sitting on my couch. The outdoors is for everyone, and I choose to view ultralight not as some exercise in gatekeeping, but as an endeavor in accessibility. Not everyone can ruck a 40 pound pack, I certainly can't; I'm of the opinion that nobody should.

I caught up with the rest of my group for lunch, and considered swimming at Rosalie-- the water was warm and inviting, but food had to come first. I then proceeded to accidentally get very drunk off of my first pint of beer. A fruitful weight-saving endeavor, but the alcohol and the calorie deficit I was running combined for a wonderful experience. Timmy, Katie, and Taylor decided to spend the day at Rosalie, a spot they felt they'd missed out on during previous thrus. I was dead-set on making it to Thousand Island Lake that night, one of the locations I'd been most excited about, and so our little trail family parted ways. I'd been hiking more or less with Timmy and Katie since the night before Pinchot Pass, and I'd been very grateful for their company-- it was strange to have to say goodbye. But say our goodbyes we did, and in an effort to make Thousand Island in time for a swim, I stumbled (quickly) away from lunch, north on the JMT.

The homemade jerky coming in clutch; the beer coming in oOoOoOo.

I'd wanted to see Thousand Island for years, and I'd actually lost the lottery for a permit a few months earlier. It would be an exaggeration to say that Thousand Island/Banner Peak/Ritter Peak were an instigating force in my decision to hike the JMT, but it wouldn't be entirely untrue, either. It's a notable location along 200 of the most scenic miles there are-- so that's a high bar. But for whatever reason, I wasn't necessarily expecting the miles leading up to it to be as scenic as they were: rushing creeks in the shadow of the Pinnacles, dense forest giving way to scenic overlooks, the trail picking its way through boulders and scree, cascading over rolling hills in the shadow of the afternoon, Banner and Ritter rising suddenly over the slopes. Before nearly any of that, though, was Shadow Lake.

Shadow Lake

Nestled below the foothills of Clarice Peak (or more accurately, Point 10,000'), Shadow lies in a dizzyingly narrow cleft in the mountains, a scar down the plateau. To the east, Shadow Creek falls hundreds of feet through the pines in an oft-hidden torrent to join the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. West, the land rises up toward Lake Ediza, taking the JMT with it. This whole watershed floods this impossibly thin imprint in the earth, hardly wider than the lake at its largest. From either side, the switchbacks down to Shadow look like they drop off into nothing, and near the bottom, the lake is revealed piece by piece. The geometry was a mystery to me until I stepped out onto the water, held off by logs and rocks, looking for a good place to filter. It was one of the many places where the trail and the lands felt alive, felt in motion. Something about the picture above captures some of that feeling for me-- not that it preserves the narrowness, the hidden aspect, but because the granite almost looks to be falling in slow motion, a glacier creeping downward. The ripples on the water are visible on a macro-scale, lake-wide. But as I did on the trail, I remain with Shadow too long, and it's inevitably time to press on.

Hopper's heavy pack was giving him a tough day, and we made slow progress toward Garnet. I'd encouraged him to take the more rugged JMT route through the area instead of the markedly less scenic PCT-- the downside was that all his maps and knowledge of the trail were no good in this unfamiliar space. The trail takes a right turn in front of the Minarets, spires presiding over the valley, and heads up the slope, not a steep climb, but the valley rapidly dropping away all the same. Before long the trail has left entirely the land of expansive views and is simply meandering through a peaceful pine forest, lichen, granite, and tarns abounding. It's peaceful, easy walking, and as the afternoon hours carried on, we made our way north. This carries on for a while, and it means that when it finally comes, the first glimpse of Garnet is stunning.

Banner, Ritter, and Garnet Lake

Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes are symmetric curves on a map, carving out either side of Peak 10570, Banner Peak rising dramatically behind them. The whole arrangement almost feels too picturesque to be real, too fabricated, and it's hard to believe this is a natural formation. It feels intentional in that it's exactly everything you could want a High Sierra lake to be: cool, refreshing water, beaches and diving rocks around the entire perimeter, imposing peaks in relief, islands scattered across the lake, excellent camping and water access, wildflowers, and perfect sunrises and sunsets. The snowfields high on the peaks lent a timelessness to the view, in mid-August of a low snow year, and the scattered clouds threw sunlight in all directions. The trail itself is perfect-- once it steps down to the shores of Garnet, it follows the bank within feet, just above the water. At the outflow, a series of bridges makes the crossing trivial and beautiful before the trial heads toward the center of the two lakes, toward Peak 10570. The JMT gains a surprising amount of height as it winds up toward these hills, and toward the end of the day, with me antsy to get to camp, I wasn't thrilled about the last remaining miles between me and my goal. But the scenery tempered my haste a bit.

As I rounded the bend in the trail at the east edge of Garnet, the sky lit up in spectacular fashion. The smoke blowing in from nearby fires made the sun rays visible as they skirted immaculate clouds, the light reflected off the still water, interrupted only by islands perforating the surface. The trail was smooth and precise, well-traveled by weekenders from Mammoth. I made my way past the crowds toward the far end of the lake, a lonely (thank god) granite slab under the dazzling light show above. I found rocks to tie down my tent guylines, gathered water-- a small cove with a beautiful beach was a short walk down toward the water, and the high passes and fascinating terrain of Banner and Ritter almost too much to pass up. But as always, there's something for another trip. The islands were tantalizing too, but it had been a long day. My crab curry and sleeping bag were even more tempting-- it was an easy decision. As shocked as I was, Thousand Island Lake lived up to the expectations that I had set out for it. I had aimed my tent door right at the mountain, and I drifted off as the last light of day flickered on the summits.

Stats for the day:

15.2 mi

+ 4800' / - 2500'



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The dream is that by running this blog, I can give those I care about a way to keep up to date with what I'm doing. Bonus points if someone stumbles across this and it helps them plan a trip or get into the outdoors. Always feel free to drop me a line if you've got questions about anything posted here!

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